Vail Daily column: Learning without hunger | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily column: Learning without hunger

I like to eat. A lot. I am especially hungry first thing in the morning. This used to be a problem when I was a kid, not because my family was too poor to afford food, but because my parents were too busy, or distracted, or neglectful or whatever it was they had going on that prevented them from fixing breakfast for me before I went to school. Frequently, I went to school hungry. Lunch was a problem, too.

According to the Children’s Defense Fund, America has one the highest rates of childhood poverty among the industrialized nations. One in five children, 14.7 million, lived in poverty in America as of 2012. Children from poor homes are more likely to go hungry, forego medical care and start school behind their more financially secure peers and less likely to graduate high school. Fortunately programs such as The Earned Income Tax Credit and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program lifted millions of children out of poverty. SNAP (aka food stamps) benefits 46 million Americans, about half of whom are children.

Another avenue for ensuring children do not go hungry are free and reduced-cost lunches at school. Almost half of American children qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. Some schools also provide breakfast and meals during the summer break. To reduce food insecurity and hunger, I propose that every public school in America serve free breakfast and lunch to all of their students regardless of their parents’ income. Participation by students and families would be voluntary. Some schools in high-poverty areas are already doing this. Not all children who go to school hungry are poor — some, like me, come from neglectful or dysfunctional families. There is no form for a child to fill out for that.

According to the NEA Health Information Network report “Hunger In Our Schools: Share Our Strength’s Teachers Report 2012,” which surveyed more than 1,000 K-8 public school teachers nationwide, “Three out of five teachers surveyed report that they see students regularly come to school hungry because they’re not getting enough to eat at home.”

“When students are hungry and distracted, they’re not learning,” said U.S. Secretary of the Department of Education Arne Duncan.

Eliminating the bureaucracy currently needed to administer the school lunch program could offset some of the costs. Another option, shift funds from SNAP to the newly created school meal program. This addresses one of the biggest complaints about SNAP — that people can buy just about any food product regardless of quality or nutritional value. Technically, you can buy Doritos and Lucky Charms with SNAP. School meals follow guidelines for balance and nutritional content that SNAP cannot guarantee. Also, the assistance goes directly to children.

I am not trying to perpetuate cradle to grave welfare. I do not have much patience for able-bodied adults who do not pull their own weight in this world. However, no child chooses their parents or the circumstances they were born into. Some children are fortunate to be born into loving families that are financially stable. Other children are not.

Education is meant to be the great equalizer. But how can a child learn if they are distracted and unable to focus because their bellies are empty? We are a rich nation. A nation of firsts: GDP, billionaires, prison inmates and military spending. Except when it comes to children. Among industrialized nations we are, according to the Children’s Defense Fund, 30th in pre-school enrollment, 31st in infant mortality and 36th in math scores for 15-year-olds.

Consider my proposal if for no other reason than enlightened self-interest. Poverty is expensive for all of us. Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children’s Defense Fund, points out, “Year after year the lost productivity and extra health and criminal justice costs associated with it (childhood poverty) add up to roughly half a trillion dollars, or 3.8 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product.” Well-fed, healthy and educated children who grow up to be productive, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens — isn’t that what we all want?”

Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at claire@clairenoble.com or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.